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The sleazy side

The sleazy side of 'Town

“They’re sleazy, aren’t they?” said our cheerfully lunatic waitress in response to our admiration for the Toff in Town booths. “People do things in them, you know.”

Given that we had just ordered a second round of food to share, it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear. But, reassessing our surrounds, it made perfect sense: not only can you close the doors on the train carriage style booths that sit in the centre of one half of the Swanston Street bar, you can pull down the blinds on the walls connecting you to neighbouring booths to ensure complete privacy.

Whether fluids of the non-alcoholic variety had been shared or indeed spilled in our booth, who was to say, but despite (or perhaps because of) the cries of “We know what you’re doing” when our blinds did come down, the comfort – and novelty of being able to hit a buzzer for waiter service – made deciding to leave tricky.

In fact, despite promising our guests a tour of Melbourne’s finest and, in some cases, hidden bars (something we’d tried and failed to do before), we never made it beyond our first port of call even though I had remembered to bring addresses and directions this time.

No St Jerome’s. No Croft Institute. No Supper Club. Just six hours in a booth being entertained by the waitress, with her habit of opening the booth doors ever-so-slightly to peek in like a timid cartoon mouse checking if the coast to the fridge is clear, and Tara, the floor manager, who is doing a far better job of hosting the Toff’s guests than giving up smoking. Oh, and consuming so much alcohol that Fran and her schoolfriend from England were incapacitated throughout Saturday.

So, that’s two lessons we’ve learnt about bar hopping in Melbourne:

  1. Take a map
  2. Expect to fail
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Let's get...

Let's get stereotypical

Bruce would never claim to be a proficient boy scout, let alone a man in the Bear Grylls / Ray Mears mould, but he has some idea of how to get a fire going.

To fit easy stereotypes, it’s a skill which all men should possess and one – like driving, map-reading and urinal-using – which women will never understand.

So, there they were, just past 11pm on a wet, chilly Friday night, being kept warm by the roaring beast Bruce had lovingly tended for the past hour in the Back Bar, off the Windsor end of Chapel Street. It looked magnificent and had attracted complimentary noises from the smartly attired gents in the corner, but the logs needed turning.

“Oi! No! No! No!” came the cry. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The manageress was on the warpath.

“Tending the fire,” said Bruce. “It needs a poke.”

“Get out of there,” she said. “You’re not allowed to do that.”

Elbowing Bruce and his assistant to one side, she grabbed the tongs and, well, it pains me to say this, but she, yep, she destroyed the fire with a couple of ill-judged thrusts.

Gone was the pyramid structure that had been allowing air below the logs.

Down went the logs to lay flat on top of the previously healthy bed of embers.

Away went any chance of heat.

Shortly afterwards a couple dressed like characters from a particularly amusing game of Misfits walked in to warm their cockles.

“The fire’s not very warm,” said Misfit #1.

“No,” said Bruce indignantly. “It’s not.”

Still, the mardy manageress presides over a nice enough bar.

Vintage armchairs, tactile wallpaper, velvet flashes and chandeliers make up the decor, with a good cocktail list, a Chapel Street clientele that for the most part wouldn’t put you off returning to Chapel Street, bearable music and – apart from the corked first glass – nice enough red wine to send Bruce home merry.

Fran attempts to disprove Olivia Newton John's badly paraphrased theory

Fran attempts to disprove Olivia Newton John's badly paraphrased theory

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Not bad for 40 bucks

Like small, but hardy, Panzers they are; coming at you from all directions like the Blitzkrieg gone awry, one hand stretching out in front like a gun turret hoping to grab the last two bags of apples for a dollar, the other pulling an overstuffed tartan trolley that’s guaranteed to send you careering out of their path if the overcoated low-slung ballast of their stocky bodies hasn’t already.

And all the while, as these grandmothers drawn from across Southern and Eastern Europe scramble for the best of the bargains, your ears are assailed by an array of voices.

EVERYTHING JUST ONE DOLLAR NOW. JUST ONE DOLLAR. COME ON. PUMPKIN, CAPSICUMS, CAULIFLOWER. ALL ONE DOLLAR. COME ON, SIR. MADAM.”

It’s a relentless barrage of noise, from 3pm onwards at the South Melbourne Market every Sunday, in accents from the broadest of Aussie to various Aussie inflections of Turkish, Greek, Chinese and Iraqi. Hawkers desperate to shift their wares before they close up for three days drop their prices every lower and throw ever more near-rotten fruit and veg into ever bigger containers.

Fruity fruit

“COME ON. LIKE ME, EVERYTHING’S FRESH, CHEAP, TOP QUALITY AND… I WAS GOING TO SAY HORNY.  SORRY. THE FRUIT’S NOT HORNY, BUT IT IS CHEAP! SO COME ON. WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

Bruce and Fran love it. Even if it means dragging a post-Saturday night hangover with them, it’s a mini-adventure and competition rolled into one. And in a country where a lack of competition means supermarket prices are far higher than in the UK it’s a bonus to be able to pick up a week’s worth of fresh(ish) fruit, veg and herbs, a few Marlin or swordfish steaks, a pound of mince and freshly ground coffee beans for less than $50.

If nothing else, it appeals to Bruce’s Scottish nature, leading to lengthy emails to be passed on to his grandfather (the epitome of the Scottish bargain hunter), much to Fran’s mirth.

The Victoria Market late in the day offers the same opportunities and we’ve heard good things about Prahran too. So, if you haven’t entered the Gladiator-like world of Melbourne’s indoor markets at closing time, climb into your Atlas ball and give it a whirl; just watch out for those grannies – they take no prisoners.

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Simple, but effective

Where were you when we needed you?

“Why on earth would you hide a bar?” asked a fellow emigre when informed of our plans for the weekend, clearly prioritising simple business principles over the rather more complex principles of being cool.

It might seem a reasonable question, although no doubt Melbourne’s with-it crowd would see it differently.

“Where did you say your friend had moved to? Dunedin? Hmmm… says it all really. He couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to live in the heart of a happening metropolis.”

Nevertheless, undaunted by our friend’s backwater Kiwi skepticism, we set out to check out some of the CBD’s fabled back alley, underground and rooftop bars. After an hour’s research online, we’d come up with a list of old and new, above and below ground, fancy and grungy, all with addresses and, where necessary, notes on which alley to head down first. There was the Croft Institute, the Supper Club, Madame Brussels and more.

At 8.45pm, we hopped off the 96 tram in Bourke Street.

“Have you got the list?” asked Fran.

“Er, no,” said Bruce. “Haven’t you?”

“No, you wrote it. I thought you picked it up from the table,” said Fran.

“You were the last out,” said Bruce.

“You’re an idiot,” said Fran, not entirely unreasonably.

Somehow, fifteen minutes later we stumbled across Section 8 where we could marvel at the brightly coloured plastic cups jammed into the wire fence, soil our trousers on the piled-high pallets, bop along gently to some choice indie-dance tunes, remark on how the addition of scaffolded roof, transporter crate and chinese lanterns to a city centre car park gave the impression of being anywhere but in a city centre car park, and be served by a young woman whose approach to hospitality suggested she based her image a little too heavily on the opening lines of Radiohead’s Kid A.

The skyline at night

A subsequent mindless meander led to another planned destination: the Rooftop bar seven floors above Swanston Street. The seven storeys proved a good workout for the quads (a little too good, it seemed, for the chuntering skinhead following behind us). And the reward at the end of the epic climb? A 15-minute scrum at the bar to get served. OK, there were summer-style deckchairs and tables scattered on astroturf, a good selection of cocktails, organic beers, and splendid 360° views of the city too, which, if nothing else, brought home just how impressive the remaining older brick built buildings are in comparison to the faceless slabs of glass and metal towering over them…

There, our success at finding bars on our lamented list ended, although in their place were some rewards, from the interesting (The Loop Bar with its selection of short films) to the unexpected. Heading back to the 96 on Spencer Street, Fran stopped suddenly.

“Hey, that place sounds like the Talk of the Town where my mum and dad used to go when they were younger,” she said.

Beware first impressions

At the Top of the Town had some pictures in its vestibule: a pool table, wood-panelled walls, what appeared to be a giant white table. It looked the kind of classy joint to end the night with a single malt and a cigar. Bruce headed inside.

“Hang on a second,” said Fran. “I don’t think that’s a giant table. I think it’s a giant spa bath.”

At that moment, Bruce’s eyes alighted on the notice advertising the club’s adherence to Victoria’s Prostitution Control Act. He withdrew his hand from the door handle and moved outside.

“Let’s catch the tram, shall we?” he said.

“Yes,” said Fran. “We get quite enough of that where we live.”

So, if whorehouses, unexpected adventure and the possibility of staying sober through a five hour drinking session (because of the time spent walking) are your thing, then head for Melbourne’s hidden bars like we did.

If not, take a map.

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The view from on high

The view from on high

With winter still a few weeks away and temperatures averaging around 25C every day, it seemed strange that so many people had come down with colds already.

But, on the night Bruce and Fran finally made it out for a pub (or should that be bar, given the paucity of any real pubs in St Kilda) crawl around Acland Street, the number of people with sniffles was astounding.

In the toilets of almost every bar they visited throughout the night, there was a cacophony of sniffs and snorts. Some people were suffering so badly they had to lock themselves into cubicles to attend to their runny noses. A handful of girls were so desperate to find the nearest piece of tissue paper that they were forced to use the men’s toilets; in a handful of cases they even had to take their friends with them to make sure they were OK; Bruce was always relieved when they came out laughing.

Al Pacino in a public service ad warning of the dangers of too much Lemsip

Al Pacino in a public service ad warning of the dangers of too much Lemsip

Other than suffering unseasonal maladies, the folks heading out on the weekend around Acland Street seemed a fairly homogenous bunch. Every bar had opted for a steady stream of um-chi-um-chi-um-chi beats to which the shade-wearing, tight-topped crews could wiggle their botox-enhanced booties.

Many of the bars were nice to look at, such as Big Mouth with its carved dark wood, red drapes and low-lit chandeliers, while the balcony upstairs at Veludo was a good spot to cool down and inhale the passive smoke from 50 cigarettes at the same time. Veludo’s sweaty Friday night entertainment upstairs featured an admirable bunch of loons in various states of Sun-Ra inspired undress banging out dirty live house music to entertain the conveyor belt of folks making their way back and forth from dancefloor to toilet.

Earlier in the night, Fitzroy Street’s Saint Bar, famed for its midget and Jaegermeister stunt, offered two-for-one drink deals that made it worth a visit, while the night ended in The Vineyard: by day a very popular bar / restaurant, by the time Bruce and Fran arrived at 3.15am, home to a gaggle of drunks, one of whom approached Bruce on the strength of their matching beards then took it upon himself to introduce his new friends to the door staff, the wonders of Archie’s pizza slice and wedges combo and very nearly drag them into the hellhole that is Traffik.

They wriggled out of that one and escaped home, trading the nightclub for an invite to the bearded man’s house party the following night. After all, Traffik looked so unhygeinic, they shuddered at the thought of how many people would be attending to their colds in the loos.

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Looks like a \

 

Maybe it’s deliberate, a ploy to attract immature British passers-by such as Bruce and Fran to have a nosey around. But, sadly, the tapas bar next to Dog’s Bar, in Acland Street, really is called Spuntino’s, no matter how jaunty and k-like the “t” on the sandwich board outside may look. Or, indeed, how much you might want it to be the home of a vertically challenged, but sexually charged superhero.

What Bruce and Fran share in lowest common denominator wit, they also seem to share when it comes to taste in eateries (and drinkeries for that matter), for after a wander up and back along Acland Street, a quick glimpse of spunk and a slightly longer perusal of the menu and Spuntino’s won the vote for Sunday night’s dinner without the need for debate.

Sat outside under the heaters, they were joined by expat chess players, an old couple dancing to the covers of some crooner called Cid, and a girl talking about how she “really liked her bum, but sometimes didn’t like her skin”. The special calamari (not deep-fried, but cooked in Jerez on a base of farmhouse potatos) and the hojinos (sweet fennel and Spanish jamon) were the pick, although the friendly waiter who somehow persuaded them to order the sweet-as-you-like rice pudding with vanilla beans, lime zest and toffee bananas when they didn’t need it was obviously pretty good too. Couldn’t the smooth bugger see Bruce was trying to watch his waist before he pulled that Jedi mind trick?*

Spuntino\'s

It felt like being on holiday by the Mediterranean, with the warm red tiles of the bar, Cid’s scattergun journey around Europe (Andrea Bocelli and the Bee Gees anyone?), the dancers pirouetting in the back and the knowledge that the sea, even in these chillier times, was tickling the sand only a few hundred yards away. Their red wine pours are generous too. Lovely.

 

* That well known trick where the Jedi master posing as a waiter asks: “Would you like to see the dessert menu?” then passes one to you before you can muster the strength to say: “No.”

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In the UK, those who drink for the sake of drinking rather than the pleasure of tasting often pour Fosters or XXXX down their throats. No sane Aussie touches the former and, outside Queensland and the Northern Territory, no one goes near the latter either.

Yet, here in Victoria, the land of the much-maligned VB, those same people will guzzle Carlton Draught as if their lives depend on it. OK, the bastards at the brewery have got a monopoly in certain places (sporting venues, the bars at the comedy festival, etc), but surely if you can steer clear of Fosters and XXXX you can make that little extra effort to avoid Carlton.

Perhaps I can help. Here’s how it’s made:

  • Whenever rain falls in Victoria, the makers of Carlton use a network of intricate channels to ensure the water flows into large hollows they’ve created in a mixture of soil and tarmac
  • Then they throw in doormats gathered from the homes of recently deceased old people
  • This water / doormat hybrid is left to stagnate in the sun for six weeks before being decanted into kegs
  • Rats’ arses are directed into tiny holes in these kegs by brewery staff who then squeeze the vermin’s bellies in order that they carbonate the liquid with their farts
  • It is then sold to you and you drink it

So, blessed with that knowledge, don’t you agree it’s time to say to the brewery: “Enough is enough!”

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